Migrant Exodus Hits Thai Fishing Hub

Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on August 10, 2017

We look at the fallout of the recent mass exodus of migrant workers on the fishing industry in Samut Sakhon. In June, the Thai government introduced - very suddenly - a new labor law that would impose harsh penalties on undocumented migrant workers. The exodus proved to be so severe that the govt had to suspend the law until next year.


The town of Samut Sakhon has seen many ebbs and flows over the years.
But the past few weeks have been particularly quiet in this fishing industry hub at the gulf of Thailand.

Many boats are forced to be left idle, docked at the piers due to a shortage of migrant workers. The reason - a sudden mass exodus of migrant labourers. 
Tens of thousands have fled to their neighbouring home countries like Myanmar and Cambodia, sparked by the introduction of a strict new labour law.
Their departure has affected many sectors, but none more than the multi-million dollar fishing industry that almost entirely relies on workers from Myanmar.
Kamjorn Mongkoltrilak; President, Samut Sakhon Fishery Association:
"Samut Sakhon is quieter than usual [now]. There’s never been a point in the past where it has been this quiet. And it’s not just Samut Sakhon - 22 provinces along the sea are all affected. Whether it’s the fishing, the processing, some business have to stop their businesses because of the lack of workers."

More than 770,000 migrants are estimated to work in Thailand.  
To manage their numbers and crack down on human trafficking, the government introduced the new labour law requiring these workers to be registered.
But critics say the law was passed without warning and public consultation. The result was panic among many undocumented migrant workers over the fear of arrest and up to $3,000 in fines. They rushed out of the country in droves, leaving businesses without staff. 
The fallout proved so severe, the government was forced to suspend key parts of the law till 2018, giving employers and migrant workers a grace period before penalties kicked in.

To mitigate the exodus, the government also erected  temporary registration centers for migrant workers.
SAKSITH SAIYASOMBUT; Samut Sakhon, Thailand:
"This is one of the pop-up centres the government has set up. There are over a hundred of them nationwide and thousands of undocumented migrant workers are signing up on a daily basis. But critics say that this is not enough to solve their problems."
The new law still leaves migrant workers open to  exploitation. They depend on brokers to help them with the paperwork but often end up getting cheated.
Sompong Srakaew; Labour Rights Promotion Network:
"For many years, when an employer hires a broker to sort out the work permits, they may work together to exploit the [migrant] workers. And who has to suffer for it? The workers. They have no other choice but to accept it and once they do they end up lose all their savings."
The Thai government is hopeful that the grace period will ease the disruption caused by the new law, and that eventually an estimated 1 million undocumented migrant workers can brought back into the fold.
That same hope is shared by the many Thai businesses who rely on these workers to keep their companies afloat.

Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Bangkok